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The Voyage of Life: Youth

On view

The Voyage of Life: Youth

Artist: Thomas Cole (American, born England, 1801 - 1848)

Date: 1840
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 65 x 91 x 6 1/2in. (165.1 x 231.1 x 16.5cm)
Overall: 52 1/2 x 78 1/2in. (133.4 x 199.4cm)
Signed: Lower center: 'T COLE / 1840 / Cat[skill]'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 55.106
Text Entries
Cole's frames:
     The frames that currently surround the four Voyage of Life paintings are very likely not the ones Cole originally put on the pictures. The geometric, "Islamic-inspired" designs of some of the applied composition ornament in the cove of the frames suggests that they were made in the 1880s. 
     Having been commissioned by Samuel Ward Sr. to paint the series, Cole worked on them in his Catskill, New York studio. After deciding on the pictures' final dimensions he had frames fabricated for them in New York City. In a November 14, 1840 letter to Samuel Ward, Jr., Cole noted that these frames, and the other supplies he used for the series, cost $1,000, an amount that was one-fifth of the fee he received to paint all four pictures. After completing the series he shipped them to New York City and by November 18, 1840 they were united with their frames for the first time.
     The series remained with the Ward family until 1848 when they were purchased by the American Art-Union and awarded in that year's lottery to J. Taylor Brodt of Binghamton, N.Y. He sold the pictures several months later to the Rev. Gorham D. Abbot who hung them at the Spingler Institute, an educational institution he founded for young ladies at Union Square in New York City. A June 5, 1855 drawing (G. D. Abbot papers, Bowdoin College Library Archives) by an unidentified artist, shows Childhood in what appears to be French-inspired rococo style frame decorated with "gadrooning," or scallops hanging in the assembly room at the Spingler Institute. The drawing also shows corner ornaments similar in size to the ones on the Museum's frames, but without the decorative scrolls that ornament the middle of the present frames' vertical stiles and horizontal rails. It is not known whether the frame that is shown in the drawing when the pictures were hanging in the Spingler Institute is one of the four Cole originally ordered for the series, or whether it depicts a frame that was put on the picture by the American Art-Union or by Abbot. 
     The discrepancy in style between the frame shown in the Spingler Institute drawing and the frames that are currently on the pictures indicates that the Museum's frames were installed on the paintings at some point after 1855, perhaps when the pictures again changed owners. This may have taken place in the late 1860s after Abbot sold the series to J. Taylor Johnson, who exhibited them in his private gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, at the newly-founded Metropolitan Museum of Art, or, more likely, in 1876, after a member of the Plant family of New York and Tampa, Florida purchased them from Johnson.
     The large, floral and leaf corner ornaments and the twig pattern on the present frames' leading edges are design details that began appearing in American frame design in the 1850s. The "Islamic-inspired" cove ornamentation, comprised of a geometric meander interlaced with stylized flowers and leaves, is a hallmark of American frames dating from the 1880s. The finish on the frames is not original; they were treated in the mid-1980s by Erwin Deimel, Oskar's Picture Framing, New Hartford, N.Y.


1. Eli Wilner with Mervyn Kaufman, Antique American Frames: Identification and Price Guide (New York: Avon Books, 1995), pp. 49-59.
2. Wilner, p. 98.

August 2010

Early in 1840 Cole began work on Youth, the second picture in his four-part allegorical series The Voyage of Life. His preliminary oil sketch for this painting (Albany Institute of History and Art) shows that Cole originally intended to have the river flow from left to right, the same general direction as it flows in Childhood.( 1) At some point before he began painting the final version of Youth, how- ever, he changed his mind and decided to show the river flowing in the opposite direction. When questioned about this, Cole replied that it was dictated by “pictorial necessity.” What he meant was that this change enabled him to avoid the problem that the series would appear monotonous if both pictures showed the river and boats heading in the same direction. In response to the charge that this change violated the internal consistency of the first two pictures, Cole explained that “there are many windings in the stream of life” and that the alternating direction of the stream in Childhood and Youth is the pictorial equivalent of the “changeable tenor of our mortal existence.”(2)

Another reason Cole may have been willing to make this alteration involves the practical matter of how the completed series, which requires around forty feet of wall space, was to be installed in Samuel Ward’s private picture gallery.(3) It is clear from the efforts Cole took in planning the original installation of The Course of Empire (New York Historical Society) (4) that he was deeply interested in such matters; if, as it seems likely, there was no single wall in Ward’s gallery long enough to accommodate four elaborately framed six-foot-wide pictures, Cole recognized before painting Youth that he should modify his original plan so that the series would be a success even if it were necessary to display it as two pairs of pictures on separate walls.(5)

To achieve this, Cole designed Youth so that the course of the river (upward and to the left) formally complements the flow of the river in Childhood (downward and to the right). Moreover, in Youth, the gesture of the guardian angel, as well as those of the youth and the angel holding an hourglass at the bow of the boat, all point in the same direction as the river flows and help to draw attention to Cole’s architectural vision which—being much more fantastic than the shallow-domed building appearing in the  Albany sketch—defies stylistic categorization: its spherical dome and lancet arcades are reminiscent of Hindu architecture, which Cole could have studied in the illustrated travel accounts and architectural treatises available to him in libraries, such as the extensive one assembled by his patron, the architect Ithiel Town.(6)

Movement toward the background of the picture is also established by the line of trees on the right riverbank, whose crowns create a strong diagonal leading to the point where the river makes an abrupt turn to the right and a trail begins winding over the hills into the distance. The large beech in the right foreground, which towers over the voyager and his guardian angel, is the only tree whose top disrupts the regularity of this diagonal line of trees. When examined in raking light, the raised paint surface that describes this tree suggests that it was painted on top of what Cole at one point may have regarded as a finished paint surface. By adding this beech Cole was able to soften the rigid geometry that he had inadvertently established with this line of trees. Assuming this to be the case, it would help to explain the statement Cole made to his wife several years later that the trees in this picture gave him difficulty.(7)  When he painted his full-sized replica of this work in Rome early in 1842 (National Gallery of Art), Cole took pains to introduce more variation into the crowns of this receding line of trees and to anchor the roots of the largest beech more plausibly in the side of the riverbank.


1. See fig. 7 in “The Voyage of Life” by Thomas Cole: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, exhibition catalog, with essays by Ellwood C. Parry III, Paul D. Schweizer, and Dan A. Kushel (Utica: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1985).

2. Elliot S. Vesell, ed., The Life and Works of Thomas Cole by Louis Legrand Noble (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964), pp. 210-11. The holograph version of this letter is among the Thomas Cole Papers at the New York State Library in Albany.

3. The exterior of Ward’s mansion and its appended art gallery are depicted in an undated water- color by Abraham Hosier, which is reproduced as fig. 2 in “The Voyage 0fLife” by Thomas Cole: Paintings, Drawings and Prints. No view or description of the interior of Ward’s picture gallery is known to exist.

4. Cole’s drawing for the installation of The Course of Empire in Luman Reed’s gallery is reproduced in Ellwood C. Parry III, “Thomas Cole’s ‘The Course of Empire,‘ A Study in Serial Imagery” (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1970), fig. 74.

5. The compositional pairing that Cole achieved by reversing the course of the river in Youth and Old Age was pointed out by Ellwood C. Parry III on p. 4 of his essay in “The Voyage ofLife” by Thomas Cole: Paintings, Drawings and Prints. Additional evidence that Cole planned the four pictures to be seen as two sets of interdependent pairs, and that he knew where they would hang in Ward’s gallery, is apparent from the sources of light he painted into the series, which in the first two pictures enters from the right, and in the second two pictures enters from the left. If Ward’s picture gallery had windows along the east wall—which is the only wall according to Hosier’s watercolor (see n. 2) where there could plausibly be any-the lighting in the paintings suggests that Childhood and Youth were hung on the north wall to the left of the windows, and Manhood and Old Age hung opposite them on the south wall to the right of the windows. When installed in this way, the natural light that entered Ward”s gallery through the windows along the east wall would reinforce the artificial light that Cole painted in each work. When planning The Course of Empire, Cole took pains to assure that the internal lighting of the paintings in that series was consistent with the natural lighting of Reed’s gallery (Parry, “Thomas

Cole’s ‘The Course of Empire,’” pp. 60-61), so it certainly seems likely that he would strive to achieve the same effect with The Voyage of Life.

6. For Cole’s relationship with Ithiel Town, see Ellwood C. Parry III, “Thomas Cole‘s Imagination at work in The Architect’s Dream,” American Art Journal, vol. 12 (Winter 198o), pp. 41-59. William Dunlap noted that Town’s library was “truly magnificent, and unrivalled by anything of the kind in America, perhaps no private library in Europe is its equal.” A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design (Boston: C.E. Goodspeed St Co., 1918), vol. 3, p. 77. For a recent survey ofthe type ofprints that Cole could have studied in Town’s library, see Thomas P. Bruhn, A Journey to Hindoostan: Graphic Art of British India, 1780-1860, exhibition catalog, with an essay by Mildred Archer (Storrs, Conn.: The William Benton Museum ofArt, 1987).

7. Cole made this statement when he wrote to his wife from Rome on February 12, 1842, in a letter he began six days earlier, which is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


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